I recently came upon a very short Boston Globe article—a paragraph, really—by a bullying expert in New Hampshire who stated, quite simply, that today’s school children are “the meanest ever” and that they have “more ways than ever to express that meanness.” The article could have been six pages long, rather than the six sentences that it was, and the end result would still be a depressing indictment of the lack of social learning, instilled values, and adequate adult supervision and guidance in the lives of kids.
I do not know a single educator who does not share this observation about the exponential growth in cruelty among students. In my opinion, the seminal article on bullying has yet to be written, likely never will be, and certainly not by me. It’s a monstrously unwieldy topic, and the best any of us can do is to try to get at it bit by bit. I can’t speak to the culture of bullying in any other era or any other county than my own, but I can articulate what is different today than when I first began my career in education 25 years ago.
At the risk of being accused of parent bashing, it begins with parents. I am one, and my analysis is derived equally from this role as from my professional perch. What I have seen in all of my work environments has been echoed in my social milieu of fellow parents.
One of the most striking descriptions about today’s shift in parenting approaches comes from world-renowned sociologist William Strauss. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at a conference in New York several years ago. He was describing the defining characteristics of the various generations of parents over the past 100 years. When he got to the modern day, he described the difference between Baby Boomer parents, whose children are now in college or beyond, and Gen X parents, whose children predominantly make up the population of K-12 students today.
Strauss was describing the tendency of Boomer parents to hover over their children, hence the nickname “helicopter parents.” By sharp contrast, Gen X parents were becoming known in schools throughout the country as uniquely unsupportive of the home-school partnership. For example, when I was a child, if I got in trouble at school, I got in trouble a second time when I got home. Today, it is as likely as not that the parents of a child who has been disciplined at school for bullying will attack the school, modeling for their son or daughter the same type of bullying behavior for which the child has just been reprimanded. Strauss summed it up by stating to his large audience of teachers and school administrators from around the world: “Good luck to you all. The helicopter parents have flown out, and the stealth bomber parents have flown in.”
So is it really that bleak? Yes and no. Sweeping generalizations ignore the many wonderful Gen X parents who are teaching their children to take responsibility for their actions and who are supportive of the teachers and administrators who serve in loco parentis for their children all day long. That said, sweeping generalizations also work as important metaphors for large-scale social changes that are indeed at play in the real world, like that of the stealth bomber parent. Parents absolutely are different today than at the beginning of my career. On many occasions I have felt burned out by the parents of my students in ways that never happened when I first entered the profession.
Parents of bullies often accuse schools of overreacting to situations and falsely blaming their children. Parents of victims often accuse schools of not protecting their children adequately. Teachers and administrators are doing their darndest to teach their classes, run their schools and deal with a tidal wave of bullying issues that shows no sign of receding. When I was a Head of School, there were weeks that I literally spent 25% or more of my time dealing with bullying, pushing aside all of my other critical work. Therefore, I now ask the question: What about the parents? This is not a problem exclusively involving kids and school personnel (read the recent article on the new laws that schools must follow to deal with bullying). Parents have a critical role to play in stemming the meanness.
While I could devote several more newspaper columns to exactly how parents can work at home and with schools to reduce bullying, I can also state it in one sentence: Parents, you must explicitly teach your children the Golden Rule when it comes to social interactions with peers. Children must learn from their parents that they should not treat other human beings in any way they themselves would not wish to be treated. The lesson is so simple it is often forgotten, but the consequences of neglecting to teach it can be scary. If parents don’t proactively raise their children, the media, pop culture, Hollywood, and social technology will gladly raise them by proxy.
Reposted with permission from the Concord Journal.